| An Indonesian soldier runs for cover during a clash with rebels at Lampu’u district in Aceh on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Banda Aceh, May 21 (Reuters): Indonesian forces clashed today with separatist rebels in the western province of Aceh, where the military said its campaign could take up to six months.
The military says it has killed 15 Free Aceh Movement (GAM) fighters since the offensive began, while GAM has estimated 20 civilians have been killed by the operation. No independent confirmation was available.
Indonesia, which has tried and failed to defeat the rebels many times before, has built up its forces to 45,000 troops and police in the province — with more to come. Commanders have said they hoped the campaign would take no longer than six months.
“This war definitely can’t be won in weeks like the US did in Iraq. The rebels have blended in in this guerrilla war,” senior military spokesman Lt Col Achmad Yani Basuki said.
A second military spokesman, M. Solih, said fighting between the reinforcements and rebels began shortly after dawn in the Bireun area, 150 km from the provincial capital Banda Aceh, and was continuing in the afternoon. “We face difficulties in distinguishing between rebels and civilians. Moreover, it’s tough terrain out there. You hear sounds of gunfire from one place, you go to it and nobody’s there,” Solih said.
The offensive, which began on Monday with troops parachuting into the province, is aimed at crushing a 27-year-old rebellion by the Free Aceh Movement, which numbers about 5,000 fighters.
Aceh military chief Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya said late today there had been no civilian casualties as a result of the offensive so far, but the military would give orders to shoot on sight anyone involved in burning, looting or kidnapping.
“In order to maintain security and order, the authority of the military operation in Aceh believes it is necessary to give orders for on the spot shooting to paralyse anyone who conducts (those activities),” Suwarya said in Banda Aceh.
He said Indonesian forces killed a total of 10 GAM rebels today, most of them in Bireun where he said a bus had been torched and a state radio station burned down.
Suwarya also said troops in helicopters fired missiles on a rebel training camp on Nasi Island, off the very northern tip of Aceh.
“Troops have landed on the island and the pursuit for the rebels there is still going on. We predict 40 rebels are there.”
Suwarya said he was not sure how many GAM rebels had been captured, but as of late yesterday, the military said it had taken nine. GAM spokesman Sofyan Dawood said earlier today he had no numbers on GAM casualties but estimated around 20 civilians had been killed as a result of the military operations.
Indonesia has sent elite military and police reinforcements to parts of the oil and gas-rich province where the government says nearly 200 schools have been torched by separatist rebels, an officer said today.
Spokesman Basuki described the fighting as “of a sporadic nature. Sometimes we can hit them, but later they run away”.
GAM has denied burning schools, but Basuki said captured rebels had revealed a plan to carry out a scorched-earth campaign that included torching schools and government buildings.